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My interest is in how problem-solving decisions are made, and what, if any skills could be taught to increase people's ability to make effective decisions? Effective, in this case, means that an external observer finds the decision a sufficient and satisfying solution to the problem given the thinker's current understanding of environment, context, and resources.

I understand the Information Principle of emotion takes the position that emotions are a "summary" of all that the unconscious notices about the current situation. (See this link for an excellent overview.) Given the breadth of its perception, and the faster processing time of its systems, emotion is tremendously powerful as an advisor. The reward system is triggered when a desired choice is contemplated, so is the role primary, rather than advisory? Is conscious thought -- what we come up with when we "think about our decision" -- always post hoc, used only for coming up with a way to explain what our feelings told us we wanted?

Regarding skills to increase effectiveness, I wonder at the value of learning to overcome our initial emotional response to allow the more deliberate conscious processes to make a real contribution. I have heard that trauma victims with absent emotions dither about the smallest decisions, so I'm not talking full suppression. Is anyone aware of research into the effect of trying to achieve some balance here?

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2 Answers 2

This is a very broad topic. I'll attempt to quickly summarize the most relevant findings from a wide variety of research areas.

Post-rationalization:

There is a fair bit of evidence that explanation follows decision-making, rather than the other way around. Here is a nice quote from Wikipedia attributed to Robert Zajonc: "decisions are made with little to no cognitive process ... we make judgements first, and then seek to justify those judgements by rationalization." My favourite example of rationalization is Choice Blindess experiments, where subjects are "tricked" into believing that they made decisions that they did not actually make, but they nonetheless explain them as if they did.

Dual Process Theory:

Part of the implication of this phenomenon is that the human mind is divided into (at least) 2 seemingly independent processes - an unconscious process that makes the decision, and a conscious process that seeks to justify it after the fact. Emotion plays an important role in some of these theories, though not all. Emotion certainly affects decision-making, and may help decision-making under some circumstances.

Pre-rationalization:

The tendency to make decisions unconsciously - biased by emotion and many other cognitive biases - can easily be overcome. In several experiments, this is done simply by ... asking. For example, Timothy Wilson induced different (rational) decisions from subjects by simply asking them to provide reasons for their decisions before making them. Similarly, Ap Dijksterhuis induced rational decisions from subjects by asking them to think about their decisions before making them.

Bounded Rationality:

Unfortunately, the results of the above experiments demonstrate that decision-making is not always improved by conscious deliberation before making a decision. This is because sometimes decisions need to take emotions into account to be successful (as in Timothy Wilson's experiments where subjects are asked to predict their preferences), and other times human deliberation is limited by bounded rationality - we have a very limited capacity. Perhaps the best way to overcome some of our cognitive limitations is to use computers to make rational decisions, but at the moment, humans are still better at making decisions than computers in many areas where rule-based decision-making cannot be used.

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An interesting perspective to clarify the interplay between rational and emotional can be found in the 'risk as feelings' approach. Here is the paper and here the abstract:

Virtually all current theories of choice under risk or uncertainty are cognitive and consequentialist. They assume that people assess the desirability and likelihood of possible outcomes of choice alternatives and integrate this information through some type of expectation-based calculus to arrive at a decision. The authors propose an alternative theoretical perspective, the risk-as-feelings hypothesis, that highlights the role of affect experienced at the moment of decision making. Drawing on research from clinical, physiological, and other subfields of psychology, they show that emotional reactions to risky situations often diverge from cognitive assessments of those risks. When such divergence occurs, emotional reactions often drive behavior. The risk-as-feelings hypothesis is shown to explain a wide range of phenomena that have resisted interpretation in cognitive–consequentialist terms.

Loewenstein, G.F., Weber, E. U., et al (2001) Risk as feelings. Psychological Bulletin, 127(2):267-286.

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can you expand your answer give a more specific summary of the paper and how it addresses this question than just the abstract? –  Artem Kaznatcheev Apr 29 '12 at 4:42

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